“I want to do a big project on America, and I’d like to apply for a Guggenheim grant. You would need to sign a paper for me, agreeing to publish a book with my photographs. I think that would allow me to get the grant.”
– Robert Frank to Robert Dalpire, 1954, Artist and Publisher ‘The Americans’
Much has been written about the photography book that defines the genre; ‘The Americans’ by Robert Frank, published by Robert Dalpire. I am interested in this book for three major reasons. One; of course because it is a wonderful collection of photographs by a Swiss photographer seeing America for the first time. Two; the building of a book of images, none of which dominate the others. Three; the origin of the layout and how it came to be.
Let me address these three
points in order.
There is something wonderful about seeing a place for the first time. There is something even more wonderful about being a photographer and seeing for the first time. America in the 1950s was a place that experienced unprecedented growth. Prosperity and the development of the suburbs, grilling on the barbeque, big – no massive – cars with fins and all manner of chrome and engines so big, a small village could run for a week on the gas alone. There was advertising everywhere and progress looked like it would go on forever. Optimism was the American way in the 1950s.
Against this excitement of a new era, Robert Frank traveled to the United States and got in a car and drove, and drove, and drove and made pictures all along the way. One could say he looked behind the veneer of what appeared to be endless happiness, freedom and hope. He saw, as only an outsider can, which is what makes ‘The Americans’ such an incredible book.
On my second point, I have
written before about how when you make a book you cannot have one or two
home-run photographs, you need to have a balance of images that are complementary,
without a single stand-out image dominating.
There is a fine art to acknowledging that you may not want to take your
best photograph and put it on the cover of a book, because it has a tendency to
dominate everything in the book, to the point that nobody sees anything but the
incredible image on the cover. In short,
you need a different approach to making a book than making a photograph. Robert Frank understood this. He decided on one image per double-page-spread. Letting each image speak for itself, without
a context, or a story. Just an
image. No image dominates the others,
and no image stands out as being better, or more successful than the
others. There is an elegance and balance
here, which every book-maker and photographer could learn from.
On the third point; In an interview Robert Dalpire, Frank’s publisher, says that he and Frank laid out the photographs on the floor, with no pre-determined number of photographs. Dalpire is quoted as saying: “….There was no problem in terms of the selection. As for the sequence, we did it just like that, intuitively.” Dalpire and Frank ended up with 174 pages. What they did that day changed how photography books are made and has set a standard rarely achieved since.
Finally, I would like to address the critic. In ‘The Photobook; A History, Volume 1’ by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger (Phaidon, 2005), there is a description of how ‘The Americans’ is structured around four segments, or ‘chapters’, as Parr/Badger call them. Each section introduced by the American flag. Parr and Badger say the book has…“an internal logic, complexity and irresistible flow that moves from the relatively upbeat pictures at the beginning to a final image of tenderness….”. To this Roger Dalpire responded: “I say it is non-sense. It is a very subjective remark that has no relationship to what we did.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat is quoted as saying: “I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.” Yet, we place great emphasis on what is good and what is bad, according to a few people, who in many cases are powerful influencers, who can make or break a career. We cannot all be like Basquiat and not care, mostly because we all need to make a living doing whatever work we do. Artists are no different, they may work for themselves, or in collaboration with a gallery, but there are still influencers out there that can make or break their career with the stroke of a pen. A nasty review and the buyers and public stay home with their wallets tightly shut.
All this said, it is great to see now and again that the critic, who takes himself seriously and writes eloquently about photography, in this case photography books, is completely overthinking the work and is outright wrong, creating context that simply is not there. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
You travel the world, and while it is different everywhere
you go, certain things seem to remain the same.
Take for instance the presence of certain birds. It seems that wherever you go there are
pigeons, crows, seagulls – at least where there is water nearby – and of-course
the humble house sparrow.
In photography, there are a number of people that have focused on birds, as do I when I see the opportunity. At the moment there seems to be a bit of a wave happening. For instance, there is a French publisher, that has gone to a number of well-, or lesser known photographers and asked them to put together a book of photographs with birds.
The books are small collections of maybe up to 50 photographs, put together and sequenced by the photographer. Different photographers feature birds, others simply have birds as an accessory. All are photographs, where birds take on great importance, either by design, or accidentally, adding a certain instantaneous urgency to the photograph.
The sudden flight of a bird, or something as transient as a
bird temporarily sitting on a branch, or on the head of a statue, or flying
through the air just so, might make the difference between something wonderful,
or something very ordinary.
Cases in point are two photographs, which I judge to be the best of their kind. The first by Pentti Sammallathi, is a purely serendipitous composition, which in a photographer that does great work, time after time after time, is perhaps not a coincidence, but rather extremely observant. Or perhaps just plain lucky.
A tree devoid of leaves and looking like either the dead of winter, or death itself, comes back to life for an instant, when the plumage of leaves may be seen for no more than a fraction of a second, created by a passing flock of birds. The scale of each leaf, or in this case each bird, relative to the tree, lets the viewer contemplate for a brief second the splendor of a tree fully in its glory, at a time when in fact, it is either dead, or dormant. It is perhaps a metaphor for life itself.
The second, and equally as incredible photograph, is a much, much darker master-piece by Masahisa Fukase. A Japanese photographer, I will confess that I did not know well, until I saw a show of his in Amsterdam. He had a strange, photography obsessed life, where at the height of his career, where so many wonderful things could have happened, he fell down the stairs and spent the last 20 plus years of his life in a coma, on life-support, never regaining consciousness. The photograph may or may not say something about a photographic career, or it may say everything. Fukase worked on a project in the unforgiving winter of the north of Japan, where he made photographs, which resulted in a book that has achieved cult status, and fortunately was recently re-issued, called Raven.
This particular photograph is of a tree, where a large number of crows, or ravens have taken shelter for the night. The scene is dark, yet because the photographer used a flash to make the photograph, the eyes of the birds reflect the light and this is captured on the film, as white dots. It is as though the birds are all watching the photographer. There is something incredibly ominous about this photograph. Something very Hitchcock. I am usually not a great fan of flash photography, and never use one myself, but in this case, it works. The result is both scary and magnificent, all at the same time. The Murder of Crows, or the Conspiracy of Ravens.
Birds animate a photograph in ways very little else
does. Maybe that is why many
photographers like them in their photographs.
A simple fly-by can change the mundane to the inspired.
I have in the past lamented the gallery that forces a photographer, or any artist for that matter, to work in a particular way. In addition to often resulting in series of photographs in a certain quantity, I also mean that the gallery has a certain lay-out, a certain amount of wall space and will organize its exhibitions based on the limitations dictated by said space. The walls are the walls and an accommodation must be made to bring the art to the space, as opposed to the space to the art.
And here we have the crux of the matter: A gallery has an artist in its stable with a
contract. Perhaps even an exclusive
contract. It befalls the artist to work
with the gallery to get an exhibition of their work. If the average gallery has between 6 and 10
shows per year, and a stable of maybe 20, or 30 artists, it does not take a
world class mathematician to figure out that on average you wait 3 years to
have a solo show. This assuming of
course that the gallery does not play favorites. Given this state of affairs, it is no wonder
that the artists might be forgiven for trying to get their work to fit the gallery
Further, it stands to reason that the gallerist fancies him-, or herself a connoisseur and has great sway when it comes to the work of the artists in the stable. After all, they picked the artists and brought the artist a certain standing by having gallery representation in the first place. Of course, I am generalizing a little, but for most artists, this is their reality.
Given that the gallerist will decide what work is shown in their gallery, the work will be influenced by the gallery space. I have heard several examples of where an artist presents new work to the gallerist, only to be told that the work is not suitable for the gallery, or will not sell. Short of breaking their contract and walking away, with whatever consequences this may entail, the artist is basically destined to conform to the wishes of their gallery.
Galleries seem to have had artists over a barrel for the
longest time. Sometimes this
relationship can be a fruitful partnership that encourages an artist to do great
work, but sometimes it is the shackles that stifle creativity and evolution of
artistic expression. After all, it
mostly comes down to simply economics.
Supply and demand. If there is
supply and no way to create demand (as in no gallery representation), the
supply is no longer relevant, however great it may be. Case in point: Dora Maar, once the muse of Pablo Picasso, and
currently showing at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, was a great artist. Picasso blackballed her work by threatening
all the galleries in Paris with his wrath should they dare to show or sell her
work after their tumultuous break-up.
Great supply. No demand.
Let me give you an example from a very well known gallery in Italy, which has in its stable one of the greatest living photographers. Out of respect for both, I will not name names. The photographer one day came to the gallery with a whole box of 30 cm x 40 cm prints that he had just finished making in his darkroom. Each photograph was wonderfully printed. The tonal range perfect. The photographs were timeless. And they will never leave the box. Why? Well, the subject matter is drawn from a number of old and perhaps forgotten cemeteries, where tilted and fallen stones, exquisite sculpture and the undeniable fate that awaits us all is shown, as only a great photographer can present it.
The fact that these photographs will never hang on the gallery wall, or be shown beyond the confines of a single box in a sea of boxes, is a reflection of the gallery having decided that this work is unsellable and under no circumstances can it be shown or hung in frames along the walls of the gallery. Of course, the gallery may be entirely right. Not a single sale could happen, were the gallery to hang a show of dead people and their memorials. But, is the decision not to show the artist’s cemetery work the gallerist’s to make?
In a world where the gallery reigns supreme, there is obviously only one answer to this question. But with public spaces abound, is it the only answer? Sadly, here too, the gallerists hold most of the cards. Art is hung in public buildings, museums, and the like, but most often with a gallery deciding what should, or should not hang. In a word, the gallery is the filter. I can understand this, as it is easier for a public service, utility or institution to go to a gallery with multiple artists and simple say that we want a show each month and can you do that for us. Easier because there will be a variety of artists represented by the gallery and instead of having multiple artists to coordinate, there is a single point of contact. Working with artists who might have different ideas, different frames, different demands, or even a different esthetic may proved challenging. Working with a gallery is above all else simple.
I write this entry as a response to what I read in the most recent issue of Monocle. A gallery in Milan run by Massimo de Carlo – the article calls him ‘Milan’s most prominent gallerist’ – has moved to a new location. A villa, constructed in 1936.
The article goes on to say that: ‘The space is embellished with a rainbow of mixed marble and ornate wall decorations’. De Carlo is quoted as saying: “Artists don’t want cold industrial spaces and cement floors anymore”, he continues “The future of art is in locations with personality and history that can stimulate the artists.”
And there you have it.
The space for the artist to show his or her work is no longer merely a
blank canvas to serve as a neutral background for their work. No, now the artist has to accommodate the quirks
of a 1936 villa, designed and decorated for the use of a family, not as a
gallery. Built at a time, when the
Fascists ruled Italy. Now, the artist
is expected, as per de Carlo, to be inspired by the space and produce art
accordingly. This sounds a little
totalitarian, does it not?
In a rather flattering introduction to the new show at FOAM in Amsterdam, Alex Prager is described as being rooted in: “……. the photographic tradition of William Eggleston, Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman, each of whom mastered the art of freezing the indeterminable everyday moment.” I am sure being in the company of those that most photography enthusiasts, and novices, recognize for their brilliance, will make lots of people flock to FOAM, Amsterdam.
Eggleston is one of the early proponents of colour photography. Arbus observed people, mostly on society’s margins, and Sherman is famous for her Untitled Film Stills. All three are gods on the Mount Olympus of Photography, yet, each is known for a very different contribution to photography. I am not sure that you can find any overlap between the three, nor even with the best intentions any reasonable link to Alex Prager.
I might buy the argument that there is a bit of common ground between Sherman and Prager, but even there, I have trouble seeing the relevance. In Sherman’s break through work Untitled Film Stills, she uses herself as a model to make photographs that could double for those we would have seen in the front lobby of any movie theater through the 1980s. The genius of Sherman’s work is in the story she is not quite telling in a single black and white photograph. Sherman says nothing. There is no title. She lets the viewer develop a story in their mind’s eye. Different hair and make-up, different looks, different distances, different settings evoke different film genres. There isn’t a Museum today that would not fall over itself to have a few Sherman Untitled Movie Stills in their collection. The photographs are beautifully staged and executed in the standard 8” x 10” format that you would see at the movie theater.
William Eggleston made photographs that, one might say, broke the colour barrier in photography. Serious photographers before Eggleston were black and white photographers. Sure, others contemporaries shot in colour, but their success did not happen till much later when they were ‘discovered’. Think Saul Leiter and Fred Herzog. Eggleston uses saturated colour. His compositions, which are often deceptively simple and sometimes by appearance, almost random. Eggleston’s photographs are shot analog and printed with the best available materials, as dye transfer prints.
Diane Arbus, is the photographer with whom I have the most difficulty finding any common ground with Prager. Arbus usually shot square format, full frame photographs of consenting people on the margins of society. Portraits, one might argue. She showed those that were outsiders and often disadvantaged. Always photographing in black and white, Arbus is best known for her posthumous 16” x 20” photographs, printed by Neil Selkirk.
Now, let us have a look at Prager. She comes up with good stories, or suggestions of stories for her pictures, which are often helped along by a title (unlike Cindy Sherman, who did not title her film stills, just giving them numbers). Prager then uses advanced computer graphics, takes a sometimes large number of digital photographic files and blends them to create the setting and background she is looking for. She prints them in large sizes, in hyper-saturated colour. One might say, that Parger is more like Jeff Wall than Sherman, Eggleston or Arbus, but maybe less cerebral?
So my message to the person writing the infomercial copy for the Alex Prager show: Colour by Eggleston. Film still by Sherman? What by Arbus? I get that you need to get people through the door. I understand that: ‘Come and see Alex Prager’s oversize, saturated colour digital prints, made using advanced software skills, blending multiple digital files, made to resemble could-be-real-life situations…..’, might not sell, as many tickets.
Let us call a spade a spade, and let us not invoke those
that were trailblazers, to boost sales. This
is not fair to Alex Prager, and certainly not fair to Eggleston, Arbus and
“…the world you live in is colour: you must re-invent it in order to show, as the colour becomes the very subject of photography, it is not a mere recording…” – Franco Fontana
The work of one of my favorite colour photographers is on display in Modena. After almost 60 years of work, Franco Fontana is given no less than two exhibitions across three venues. I saw a retrospective of a reasonable size, maybe 100 photographs in Venice a few years ago. But the Modena exhibitions are supposed to be the main event. I hope to go there in the coming weeks.
At 86 years of age, Fontana keeps working, the quality and the eye remaining intensely strong. In a recent interview by Paola Sammartano, Fontana talks about his work. I found it enlightening. As you can see from the quote above, making colour photographs is challenging, as what we all live and see is in colour – well most of us anyway – and in order for this not to be just another postcard, enter the magician’s eye for composition.
Fontana explains that what the colour photographer has to do, is turn the colour of the everyday into the subject itself. To a photographer – me – who tries hard to see the world in black and white and shades of grey, this is profound. Fontana does not look for a particular composition of everyday life, as I do, he looks to take colour and turn the colour that he sees into the subject of the photograph, not actually setting out to record the object or scene that is in front of him. Fontana has a different way of seeing.
I first knew Fontana from books. He has done a lot of books. Still does. A few years ago, I bought a Polaroid by him, which I proudly framed. And more recently, I added a second photograph. It is one of Fontana’s most famous photographs taken in the south of Italy. The rolling landscape and the single tree are brought together by clear lines of precise colour coming from each field. Note that there is no horizon and aside from the tree, which could be large or small, there is no indication of scale. It is a wonderful colour composition. It works. Much better in colour, than it would have in black and white. This is a photograph of colour, not a tree, nor a landscape. This is pure Fontana.
Fontana says that: “….what you see is colourful and has to be reinvented [by the photographer] because the colour itself must turn an object into a subject. If it remains merely an object, then I think the film, and not the photographer, is managing the colour.”
To me this explains
why in his most successful photographs, Fontana is not making colour saturated,
beautiful postcards, but is using the colour that he sees to create
compositions that are about colour itself.
Colour separate from what is actually before him when he takes the
I think many would
probably suggest that Fontana’s most successful photographs have an abstract
quality to them, showing fields of colour that together with other fields of
colour create a splendid composition.
Fontana is asking the viewer to think about colour for its own
sake. Some will seek to find, and in
most cases can make out the original object of the photograph. There is nothing wrong with wanting to
understand the origin of genius. It is
to better understand what it was that Fontana saw, and reinvented, so well.
Among today’s hyperactive selfie-nation there are surely phone owners who can make Fontana photographs, either by chance, or by computer. But, I admire that Fontana with film, camera, lens and available light, repeatedly can produce profound statements of colour that are not only recognizable and in his signature style, but also represent the finest in colour photography.
The curator of one of the two shows in Modena, the one not curated by Fontana himself says that: “His bold geometric compositions are characterized by shimmering colours, level perspectives and a geometric-formalist and minimal language”, going on to say that: “The way Fontana shoots, dematerializes the objects photographed, which loose three-dimensionality and realism to become part of an abstract drawing.”
I like what Fontana
himself says a lot better, but then, he is only the photographer.
Note: See the exhibitions at the three venues in
Modena through August 25th at:
Margherita, Sala Grande, Corso Canalgrande 103
Giardini, Corso Cavour 2
MATA – Ex
Manifattura Tabacchi, via della Manifattura dei Tabacchi 83
I remember when in 1969 – at the age of 7 – I was watching a
small black and white screen at friends’ cottage. A small grainy picture. I had been playing most of the day and we all
gathered for the eventful moment when man – in the person of Neil Armstrong –
stepped off the bottom rung and planted his boot on the surface of the
moon. I didn’t speak English at the
time, so a quote would not be appropriate here, but I was very much aware of
the weird huge white space suits, the oversize motorcycle helmets and the super
awkward gloves that looked like they were completely useless at picking up
Over the years, I have had a lot of NASA photographs pass through my hands. I have kept a few, but mostly, I exchanged them for other things, because, I am not a great believer in the longevity of old colour photographs. But I digress…. I did keep two. One that I think proves beyond a reasonable doubt that actually, the moon landing never happened. It was all on a set in the Arizona desert. And to prove my point, when you go to the NASA library and look up this particular image number, it doesn’t exist!
I am only kidding, of course, but the man in the background does prove good fodder for what the conspiracy theorists all say. The wide 70s tie blowing in the wind and his high-waist brown pants and loafers. The hair. You have to love the hair. It reminds me a little of my dad’s hair at the time, along with the sexy mustache and the shades. He wasn’t really supposed to be in the frame.
Of course man landed on the moon, but this particular photograph is all about the simulation, in the heat of the Arizona desert. Can you imagine just how horrible it must have been? Unbelievably uncomfortable. I would imagine great relief among the chosen few, when finally they got on with it and landed on the moon, putting the strange suits to good use.
The second image I kept is usually referred to as the
‘Jumping Salute’. I will leave it to the
official description from NASA:
“Astronaut John W. Young, commander of
the Apollo 16 lunar landing mission, leaps from the lunar surface as he salutes
the United States flag at the Descartes landing site during the first Apollo 16
extravehicular activity. Astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr., lunar module pilot,
took this picture……”
Between these two photographs, I think I have found the two most humorous from all the NASA Apollo missions. Both are great fun, and both should be part of the celebration of what we can achieve as humans, while maintaining a smile on our faces. Don’t forget, it was all accomplished with the computing power of the average pocket calculator (for those that remember what they look like).
It has been 50 years since the last time. Perhaps, it is time to renew the vision of man on the moon. Perhaps, looking back at the only planet we have, we can make sure we start to take climate change seriously!?
I read this morning that a body of work by Annie Leibovitz is being presented at Art Basel as a 200 cm x 100 cm composite of her Driving series from the 1970s and early 80s. While this on its own is not great shakes, it goes to the continuing issue of bigger is better. Instead of 63 images in a book, these have been assembled in a digital grid – 9 across and 6 down – unlike the original images, which were of course analog. So, how do we read this. Is it a means to an end, as in achieving a huge price point, for a work by Annie Leibovitz? I don’t get it.
Leibovitz’s gallery, Hauser and Wirth – a Gagosian Gallery in training – when announcing their exclusive representation of the photographer, said among other things: “…through a poetic body of far-reaching work Leibovitz has become an avatar of the changing cultural role of photography as an artistic medium”. I don’t even know what that means…..
Hauser and Wirth is a global super gallery that represents few photographers, a lot of conceptual artists, and I guess, now Annie Leibovitz.
I have a lot of time for Leibovitz’s work in her days at Rolling Stone Magazine, but sadly, I think she lost it a bit over time going to large crews, huge production and lighting get-ups and sadly more and more digital manipulation. The final straw for me was when I read that she shot Queen Elizabeth II for an official portrait and then decided it was better if she moved her outside, expect she only did that on the computer, so we have a photograph taken inside Buckingham Palace with perfect, controlled lighting and a completely fabricated background. Maybe she was thinking of Renaissance portraits that often had highly imaginative landscapes in the background, like the Mona Lisa?
All this to say that I am a great admirer of Leibovitz’s handheld, spontaneous and opportunistic photographs of artists and people driving cars, but she seems to have lost the plot and is now represented by a gallery that is playing with the price point of her work to create a new and different Annie Leibovitz, no longer a photographer, but some kind of conceptual artist.
Incidentally, Hauser and Wirth also represent August Sander, about whom they say “Sander is now viewed as a forefather of conceptual art…..” Serieux? The same August Sander that the gallery quotes on its homepage, just a few lines above, saying: “I hate nothing more than sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects. So allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people”. I guess you will say anything to get your artists to fit within certain gallery parameters.
One has to wonder about the big global galleries (read super expensive) that are said to manage the careers of their stable of artists, and, I am told, unceremoniously dump them, if they cannot reach a particular price point within a certain period of time. These galleries usually will show a variety of artists; great masters of modern painting and sculpture, contemporary artists and the occasional photographer. They will include the photographer, because the gallery’s clientele is the super wealthy that will pay top dollar for art recommended by these galleries, and at the moment, photography is cool.
But how do you solve the price point? Bigger is better, seems to be the answer. Gursky’s huge digitally manipulated plexiglass mounted images, or Jeff Wall’s equally huge digital tableau prints and light boxes, help justify the price. Now, you can add Leibovitz’s 9 x 7 grid of drivers in cars.
One has to wonder, if clients are actually buying art, or are buying a gallery provenance. Do they say: ‘I bought this at Hauser and Wirth’, or ‘I bought a photograph by Annie Leibovitz’. A guess? …….Anyone?
Annie, the Avatar, as defined by Webster: “An electronic image that represents and may be manipulated by a computer user”. Appropriate? I am sorry Ms. Leibovitz has chosen this path. Her work deserves better.
Most of the time, I will have on my image glasses. These virtual glasses seem to place what is before me in a 24mm by 36mm frame. In other words, I am composing new photographs all the time. I think it comes from having seen a lot of photographs and having taken a lot of photographs over many, many years.
It is like an internal dialogue that
takes you through a series of steps, along these lines: “hmmm, interesting”, then “I wonder what I
could do with that”, to “hmmm, that is an interesting and good composition”, to
“now”, at which point I raise the camera, make my manual adjustments for speed
and F-stop, I focus and press the shutter.
There is a certain rhythm to this exercise and it happens over and over
again, as I move through a city, landscape or simply sit in my chair at home
and watch the light move past my windows, changing light and shadow.
I have always been preoccupied with the
single image. Film never interested me,
it was always about the single frame. A
small story in a single frame.
I came across a description of this
single image versus a series of images by Teju Cole in “Human Archipelago”:
“A single spectacular image has its
satisfactions. It is a self-contained thing, and part of its force comes from
that self-containedness. It functions like a haiku. It is an image in a hurry,
though it disguises that hurry somewhat.
Something else happens with images
intended for a series. These images are
like individual sentences in an essay. The essay as a whole is obviously what
matters, and spectacular individual sentences can go against the grain of the
whole essay, unbalancing its intention.”
This goes to the point that I have
raised before. When you go to an art
gallery and see an exhibition of a series of photographs on a topic or maybe a
location, one of two things very often happens, either there are no sold
stickers – often a little red dot – indicating that no photographs have been
sold, or there will be multiple dots under the same image, suggesting that
several prints of this particular image have been sold.
To me this suggests that the single image with all the dots has effectively stolen the show, as Cole says, a single sentence in the essay has spectacularly outshone all the other sentences. Hence, a single image with other images around it to form a whole that is either the result of a gallerist insisting that a series be provided for the show, or a photographer that may have spent too much time looking at their own work, and as a result perhaps lost a bit of focus and self-evaluation.
Not to say that series cannot work. After all, Life Magazine in its day was full of series made by very strong and very successful photographers. But as Robert Frank described at some point – I forget where – that in his seminal book The Americans, he did not necessarily choose the best individual photograph, but created a book layout. A different task, a different flow, and a lot of famous images, but perhaps not one single image that outshines all the others.
Perhaps this helps describe the difference between the story and the single image.
In a recent article, Agnes Sire, the Director of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson discussed the legendary photographer – by most collectors and enthusiasts of photography simply referred to as HCB – setting out to explain some of the magic that has surrounded the photographer for more than three quarters of a century. Here is my contribution:
HCB’s seminal book, in English called “The Decisive Moment” and in French
“Images à la Sauvette” (1952), HCB assembled a selection of his photographs of
various subjects, in a novel style that was made possible by a small, nimble
hand-held camera, in the hands of a master, who had a great eye and a classical
background in composition. The book has
come to be, perhaps, the most important book ever published in the field of
HCB paradox, in my mind is one of reconciling the idea behind the two titles of
his book. In English TheDecisive
Moment, in French translated into English Images on the Run. Arguably HCB did both, he found the exact
moment to take a photograph. He did so with great composition and great command
of light and shadow. However, the concept
of the decisive moment is based on perfect composition and perfect content, but
to make a photograph at the decisive moment, you have to wait for the decisive
moment. You have to be patient. You compose your image in the view-finder,
you set the graphic elements and ensure that the light and shadow elements will
work in the final black and white print, and then you wait. You wait for the right element to enter the
photograph, usually this is people, a dog, a car or another moving object and
you press the shutter when the moving element is in the perfect position in the
composition you have prepared for it.
This is the Decisive Moment.
good example is the bicycle rider in the 1932 image from Hyères in the south of
France. The graphic elements of the
staircase, the position of the photographer above the subject, and the stairs, walls
and building all round, create the perfect setting. The perfect light and shadow elements form the
perfect frame for the lone bicycle rider that comes along the cobble stones on
the road below.
on the Run, on the other hand, suggests that you lift the camera, compose the
image on the fly and capture the moving elements perfectly within the field of
the viewfinder. All in a fraction of a
second. This requires not only
incredible luck and intuition when it comes to the compositional, or graphic
elements, but also the moving elements have to be just perfect. While I would argue that this happens, it
does not happen often, and certainly not every time.
prime example of this would be HCB’s Behind the Gare Saint Lazarre, which
captures the jumping figure and his reflection in the standing, perfectly still
water, with a poster in the background of a circus artist in a strikingly
similar position as the jumper in the foreground. There would have been only a second or two to
anticipate this shot and certainly no time to prepare. Lucky?
Perhaps, but it still takes a great eye to make this come together.
contradiction in these two photographs is that in the first, the one from Hyères,
it is 99% sure that the composition was created, and the shutter pushed down only
when the bicycle appeared below.
Arguably, HCB might have seen a bicycle come across the field, followed
by him setting up the shot and waiting for the next bicycle, however, unlike
the Saint Lazarre image, where HCB could see in advance that the figure was
going to come across the boards and would perhaps jump, giving him time to
raise the camera and press the shutter at the perfect moment, the shot with the
bicycle could not be anticipated, as the bicycle would have come from behind the building to
the right at some speed, and there simply would not have been time to even raise
interpretation of the two book titles, perhaps illustrated with the two
examples above, creates part of the mystique around HCB. He nursed this mystique. It is said that he buried a small box of
negatives – individual negatives cut from whole rolls – in his garden before the
outbreak of World War II. The mystique
is augmented, as some of these negatives are among his most celebrated. They date from the 1920s and 30s and are in
many cases iconic. However, in saving
individual negatives only, as opposed to entire rolls of film, you cannot see,
if he took 30 photographs to get the one with the bicycle…. Perhaps there was one
with a pedestrian, one with a pram, one with a car, and so forth, and he
selected the one with the bicycle. There
is no way of knowing how the decisive moment was achieved. How many shots it took before the bicycle came along. It is more than likely that there would have
been several photographs from the same spot before the bicycle came along. We will never know, and I am convinced that
HCB liked it that way. The box of
individual negatives contributed greatly to the legend that he became and
cemented in his followers his incredible ability to compose every frame perfectly
every time. We will never know how many
photographs of the same scene would have appeared over and over again with
variations in the key moving elements, until the right one came along and the
decisive moment occurred.
is this important you ask? Well, I think
the majority of HCB’s iconic images are actually very carefully composed frames
with moving elements captured just at the right time. As opposed to simply lifting the camera at
the right second and by magic shooting at the same time as designing the
composition within the frame, as would be the case with the ‘photographer on
is by no means a scientific analysis of the master’s work, nor is it a critique
of the man’s incredible skill and his wonderful photographs, it is my interpretation
of how he nursed his own legend and at the same time suggested that
compositional, framing elements were everything, but that the fraction of a
second when the decisive moment happened was also everything and somehow the
compositional elements came together with the moving elements in a decisive
moment, in a spontaneous, not pre-planned fashion. This is pure fabrication. Perfect composition, lighting and the moving
elements do not just come together in the 1/125th of a second that
one might shoot in today, or the 1/50th of a second that HCB would
have shot at in the middle of the last century.
Yes, it can happen. Yes,
experience will help with the composition elements. But it is not something that happens over and
over again and just for HCB.
am not suggesting that HCB’s photographs are not mind-blowing and that the
sheer volume of his incredible photographs are not awe-inspiring for any
photographer, what I am saying is that a great number of his photographs are
carefully composed in advance and taken once the moving, critical element
entered the frame in exactly the right position and the shutter was
pushed. Of course, lots of HCB’s
photographs are absolutely taken on the run, but often the compositional
elements are not quite as strong, and the action, or the moving elements, as I
call them, tend to be a little more centered in the frame, as would be natural,
if you see something happening, you raise and point your camera, and press the
shutter, all in a matter of a split second.
In conclusion: HCB did both the well-composed decisive moment photographs and the images on the run photographs. So, perhaps it is appropriate that his collection of photographs published to such great effect in 1952, in a somewhat convoluted manner had both titles. The result is a collection of both carefully composed images, where behind the scenes, an entire roll might have been committed to get just the right moving element, and images that were a result of a split second decision to shoot, where a roll might actually contain 36 completely different photographs.
was superb at supporting his own legend, and had a reputation for harshly
critiquing mentees who broke his rules for strict composition and perfect
timing for the moving elements. He was a
great photographer, but the legend that all his photographs were split-second
decisions, where he just happened to be exactly in the right place, in the
exact right position, in the 1/50th of a second where the whole
thing came together in his view-finder just so, is entirely the stuff of legend
and a carefully nurtured legend at that, which HCB seems to have enjoyed
thoroughly. His writings, his
quotations, his legendary privacy, hatred of having his picture taken, all have
fed the reputation and formed the iconic legacy that he enjoyed during his
lifetime, and beyond.
of his more famous quotes reads:
“For me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to ‘give a meaning’ to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry – it is by great economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression”.
This is the stuff of legend, and for the average photographer the kind of stuff that makes the knees knock and the hands shake. And while it can certainly happen, it is the exception rather than the rule, because as a rule with HCB, composition came first, and more often than not, the moving elements were the result of patience and multiple efforts before achieving the final result. The quote is revisionist, and designed to further fuel the legend.
It doesn’t diminish the value or the
incredible number of magnificent photographs that the master produced during
his long career, but it does make him human.
At least a little more human than the legend might otherwise suggest.
For a long time I have been subscribing
to Alex Novac’s newsletter. Alex sells
photographs and is a well-respected expert, particularly in the area of 19th
century images. He also takes it upon
himself to provide updates to his subscribers on a variety of current events,
and I paid particular attention to his summary of discussions with exhibitors
at Paris Photo, which I attend each November and have for years.
This year, he interviewed and quoted a
number of exhibitors who overall were very happy with the exhibition and
enjoyed the incredible attendance and the many sales, as well as seeing what
their colleagues are up to. Paris Photo
remains the key event in the calendar of anyone collecting photographs,
wherever they might be from in the world.
In 2018, one of the booths at Paris Photo was Peter Fetterman, one of the Grand Masters of the medium from his gallery in California. Peter Fetterman’s booth at Paris Photo was a wonderful display of what the French call ‘Humaniste’ photography, what I often translate to ‘The Human Condition’. I quote, as follows from Alex’s newsletter:
With regards to the photography market
generally, Fetterman commented, “If it’s great material and it touches
people, then the market is strong. I think people are more sensitive now and
can tell when an image has been created for a market rather than as a personal
statement. All these photographers in my booth, back in the day they never sold
anything. They did it, because they had to do it. Emotionally they had to
express themselves through their photography. But a lot of the work created
today is big prints about nothing, in an edition of three, and that’s supposed
to make it important? It’s manufactured, and I think people are catching on to
that. It’s a lot of hype. I think the real artists will always be successful,
and the here-today, gone tomorrow won’t. It’s Darwin basically, survival of the
fittest and the most talented. And I think market corrections are good.”
I have for many years been wondering how some of the modern photographs that we see commanding huge prices can possibly be set along side some of the masters of the medium. More about that another day, and hats off to Peter Fetterman. I share his views.
A most famous, smelly leather jacket recently sold for $147000. A remarkable amount of money for a remarkable garment. Levi Strauss & Co. made the jacket. They called it the Cossack. Originally sold in 1931, Levi Strauss & Co. bought the jacket back in 2016. Why you ask?
Albert Einstein purchased the leather Cossack jacket – a brown leather model with a small collar and a simple row of buttons. No embellishments. A simple, straight up and down leather jacket that would look modern today, as it would on someone like Steve McQueen or James Dean in the 1950s and 1960s. Timeless.
Ms. Lotte Jacobi had photographed Einstein in 1928 in Germany and returned to photograph him at Priceton in 1938. At Princeton, she asked Prof. Einstein to invite Leopold Infeld to join him in his office, so that she could photograph Einstein while in a conversation with the colleague. The resulting photographs show a relaxed Einstein wearing his now famous leather jacket with his signature hairdo. The photograph may well be the most famous image of the Scientist and Nobel Laureate, perhaps competing with the Arthur Sasse 1951 photograph of him sticking out his tongue at the photographer.
Einstein bought the jacket around the time when he was in the process of
becoming a US citizen, and continued to wear it for many years. He wore it frequently. There are several photographs showing him
wearing it, including an iconic April 4, 1938 cover of TIME magazine, a colour
illustration based on the Lotte Jacobi photographs from the session at
As a collector of photography, I often wonder what makes an icon, and what
best illustrates an icon. Is it a photograph
of Marilyn Monroe’s skirt over the subway grate by Bruno Bernard, is it the
Dennis Stock photograph of James Dean walking in the rain with a cigarette in
his mouth near Times Square? What photograph has that something that makes the
subject an icon, or indeed makes the photograph iconic? What makes it cool, and
why do these photographs continue to capture the imagination? I don’t know, but Einstein in his leather
jacket is the best, it is simply the definition of looking cool.
Einstein started work at Princeton University in 1933. He applied for US citizenship in 1936 and
became a citizen in 1940. A colleague at
Princeton, Leopold Infeld wrote about the jacket in his autobiography: “One of my colleagues at Princeton asked me,
‘If Einstein dislikes his fame and would like to increase his privacy, why does
he … wear his hair long, a funny leather jacket, no socks, no suspenders, no
ties?’ The answer is simple… One leather jacket solves the coat problems for
many years.” Thomas Venning, who works
at Christie’s added that the jacket was “an incredibly worn, rather pungent
leather jacket.” And added, “Einstein was an incessant pipe smoker and,
astonishingly, 60 years after his death, his jacket still smells of smoke.”
Levi Strauss & Co. will add the jacket to its archive, said Tracey Panek, the company’s historian.
Karl Lagerfeld, the ‘Kaiser’, fancied himself a photographer. I watched a documentary about his work some years ago and basically, a small army of assistants set up the shot and Karl stepped in, in his black driving gloves, high collar, skinny black tie, sunglasses and white ponytail and pressed the shutter. Did he have the vision? Probably. Did he do the work? Not really.
I am not sure I consider this the work of a true photographer, but I do have respect for Mr. Lagerfeld’s creative skills in many areas. The man had a great eye, there is no doubt. Watching him sketch, or in a decisive manner declare that a skirt should be one centimeter shorter, with 15 minutes to show time, was amazing to watch. He worked endless hours and without a doubt brought Chanel to new heights and likely had a great influence on how women have dressed over the past three decades.
I have seen a bunch of Lagerfeld’s photographs over the years and bought two for my own own collection about 15 years ago. I like the graphic feel of these images, while I am sure that he didn’t select the settings on the camera, nor arrange the lighting and so forth, he did design the black and white clothes, which suit Helena Christensen incredibly well. The look would not be out of place, even 30-odd years later. They were taken by Karl – at least nominally – and used for his Chanel campaign. I am not entirely sure what year, but judging by the cut, sometime in the late 1980s?
While I don’t think of the Kaiser as a great photographer, I do think of him as having a great line, both on the page and when asked in any number of languages for a comment. Speaking always at high speed, he delivered some wonderful lines over the years. My favorite quote, and an opinion that I share emphatically, particularly as a person who spends way too much time in airports, where perhaps the worst fashion statements are made, he said with his usual machine gun delivery:
“Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.” – Karl ‘the Kaiser’ Lagerfeld
Karl Lagerfeld (10 September 1933 – 19 February 2019) RIP
For many years, I have looked for a print of the famous war photograph that shows the profound sadness and despair among Frenchmen, not loyal to the Vichy puppet government. I finally found a press print.
Like so many other mystery photographs, this one is attributed to an anonymous photographer. Some sources I found, say the Associated Press. But always one for a good mystery, I started looking a little harder.
There is newsreel footage from a solemn time in Marseille (not Paris, as has been assumed by many) where a parade of French Regimental Banners left French soil for safe-keeping in Algeria, so as not to fall into the hands of the advancing German Army. The banners left France onboard ship, returning only with the Invasion by Allied Forces towards the end of the war. I assume this would have been in the fall of 1939.
I have always wondered why no photographer ever took credit. Why no print was ever made that didn’t seem a little muddy. As though the only way to print this image was from a not-so-great inter-negative. Not an original negative. Not a first-generation print. I always thought the image was so good that the quality was perhaps secondary. Perhaps the image was so important that I should look for it even if it wasn’t in perfect condition.
But then, the great reveal……… I found this old newsreel on Youtube of all places. The link is here, posted by someone called “All is History”:
Here is a screen capture at 29 seconds:
There is no way that a photographer would have been able to take a photograph at the exact same angle, from the exact same place, at the exact moment. In other words, the credit for this incredibly important image goes not to a photographer, but to an unknown cameraman, covering the news. Part of a newsreel for everyone to see in the theaters of what little remained of a free Europe, before the feature film that would follow.
It is a mystery that has probably been solved. It is perhaps a little sad, as we now know that in fact there is no anonymous photographer, but rather a cameraman, who was in the right place at the right time. Of course, now the cameraman is elusive, but that is a mystery for another day.
The ‘photograph’ of the crying Frenchman has become legend. It has become the embodiment of so much pain and suffering by the occupied people of France. It has been claimed as showing a heart-broken spectator to the German army marching down the Champs Elysee. But the footage does not lie. The voice-over tells the story:
“Gone is the Republic of France. Gone is free speech and a free representative government. Gone is liberty, equality, fraternity. With their ears they listen, but their minds and their hearts are down by the Mediterranean, where the colours of the regiments are being taken to Africa, out of the Nazi grasp. The people weep, as their glory departs, but they don’t as yet know that France has hope, a rallying point. Charles de Gaulle, a soldier in the great tradition of France is not surrendering. He will continue to fight, gathering about him loyal Frenchmen from all over the World, who become the free French army. The fighting French. Yes, the people weep as they watch their colours go, not knowing that two years later these same flags would be unfurled in North Africa.”
Clearly, the footage is a mix of film from different locations and different times. The voice-over must have been added later. The mix of Charles de Gaulle footage and the footage of the banners leaving Marseille are not contemporary. However, the footage of the crowds and the banners leaving, I believe, are indeed from the same reel and as such, I can see nothing that would dispute either the origin of the photograph, or the ‘photographer’, the unknown cameraman.
Let me close by saying that I love the photograph. I don’t care that it is a single frame from a few feet of film. It is I believe a symbol. A moment in time. What a photograph can sometimes do when it is very successful. It stands as a testament.
It is France at a time of deep sorrow, captured forever in a photograph. A single frame.
I met him once. He sat in his café-cum-bar at a corner table by the window. He was the belle of the ball, the one that everyone in the know was looking at discreetly, or in some cases staring at wildly. A legend. A celebrity. A man who managed to capture the essence of Istanbul.
Sure, he claimed he was much more than that, when asked. He would talk about all his travels, where he had visited and photographed, how he was hand picked by Henri Cartier-Bresson to join Magnum, but the legacy persists: He was the king of Istanbul, the pride and the living visual memory of the great city.
His photographs are atmospheric and truly sensitive to what it means to see Istanbul for what it is and what it was. The cross-roads, the cradle and the mystery that is the front door to Asia, the legendary city of sultans, the gateway, mysterious and wonderful. Any photographer would have given their eyetooth to make some of the photographs that Ara Güler so amazingly did over and over again, day after day. Orhan Pamuk’s words and Ara Güler’s photographs in many ways define Istanbul.
Ara Güler had a great eye and was an early riser. His photographs reflect some of the things you could only possibly experience when rising at dawn and making your way to the port, where your friends and people that you could relate to, allowed you to travel with them on their boats and make photographs of tough lives well lived, witnessed by someone who was there, but was also himself one with them. It seems to me he photographed like the invisible man, making photographs that bear witness and simply shows what daily life was like only a few decades ago in a city that has changed so much.
It always impresses me when photographers have a body of work they are famous for, as opposed to a single image or two. Ara Güler doesn’t have a signature image, at least not one that I would willingly identify as such. I recognize a lot of his images that I saw in his little gallery upstairs from the café in Istanbul, or in his several books. But unlike many of his peers, he created a feeling and an atmosphere with his photographs, which nobody else seems to be able to capture. Many have tried photographing Istanbul at various times over the past 100 or so years, but I always end up comparing them to Ara Güler and I always conclude that they are good, but not quite as good as those made by the King of Istanbul.
He who wanted to be remembered for so much more, will always be the one who photographed Istanbul: Ara Güler, the one who did it better than anyone else.
Ara Güler (August 16, 1928 – October 17, 2018) was fittingly born in Istanbul, and passed away in Istanbul, may he rest in Peace.
Having spent a few days in the United Kingdom, I came away both troubled and encouraged. I got to photograph one of my bucket list locations; Castle Howard. Located just north of York, it is a castle, anchored in my mind from the time the lavish production of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews aired in 1981. Strawberries and Champagne….., need I say more. I had the grounds of Castle Howard all to myself for a full hour before the buses arrived, it was truly a magical time, despite the drizzle.
Having carried on to the great colleges of Cambridge, it was with some sadness that I saw galleries lining King’s Parade and Trinity Street, opposite King’s-, Trinity- and St. John’s colleges. None of them, not a single one offered photography. There was jewelry by local artists, sculpture in various media and paintings, even a couple of hyper-realist painting that could have passed for colour photographs. I say this because there was a time, when I thought that photography had rightfully taken its place along with the other fine arts. But alas, it seems there is a long way to go before the vox populi start to share in the enjoyment of a great photograph.
I figured that with design magazines and the occasional great photography museum show, it would be a matter of only a short time before everyone would want a great photographic image on their wall.
What does it all mean? Well, the half-full view would be that it is a great time to buy a photograph, the half-empty view that photography will never catch up and take it’s rightful place among the fine arts. But economics will tell you that it has been one of the greatest areas of investment over the past 20+ years, and there is no end in sight. When you compare what you can get for your money in photography versus in painting or sculpture, the choice is simple.
At the end of the day, you read this because you area interested in photography, and as such, I am preaching to the converted. However, there is no doubt in my mind that even compared to the stock market, photography is a great place to be. Much better to look at than a stock certificate, or a bond.
I don’t think I am wrong in saying that a lot of museums around the world are waking up to the fact that they forgot to collect photography and should be adding to their collections. Much great work is being purchased by museums and institutional collectors, driving up prices in the auction market. Museums rarely speculate, they want the sure thing, unless it is specific to their region, country or national identity, but they do want a collection that reflects the masters of the medium. You as the private collector have an opportunity to help set the market and identify great photographers.
It is a great time to be a collector and a great time to be a photographer!
In 1864 President Abraham Lincoln signed a Bill declaring the Yosemite Valley inviolable. Many agree that the reason this happened was the impossibly challenging expedition that Carleton Watkins made with his huge glass-plate camera to the valley in 1861.
It is agreed by most photography historians that the single most important reason for the protection of Yosemite, were the stunning photographs taken by Carleton Watkins and circulated in the House and Senate among congressmen and Senators, most of whom had never been west of the Mississippi. Lincoln himself never managed to get to California, hence never had a chance to personally see California, or visit the Yosemite Valley. But the photographs spoke.
I have just returned from the Memoria exhibition at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. Two floors of James Nachtwey’s photographs, virtually all representing his 40 years of covering human conflict with his camera. So close-up it is nothing short of terrifying. When you see so much pain, so much hatred, and so much human suffering, you stand very quietly and think how time and time again mankind loses its humanity causing untold terror and irreparable damage. This exhibition is so intense that many at the exhibition today simply left half way through. Saying nothing. They just walked away in disbelief.
Almost 200 photographs hung in small groups, each covering a particular human tragedy. Each photographed impossibly close up. Some in colour, some in black and white. The overall impression leaves the viewer stunned and in awe at just how much humans can inflict on other humans, usually imposed by leaders who are just moving the chess pieces around the board without ever seeing the results of their decisions.
Which brings me to the point of this blog.
Learn from Carleton Watkins. Hang 200 photographs by James Nachtwey in the corridors of power around the world. In the Kremlin, in Washington, in Beijing…. Show the exhibition at the United Nations and at the European Union in Brussels. Perhaps we won’t get a resolution to end all war and conflict, but we can perhaps rethink our humanity and bring home in spades what decisions made by politicians, and leaders of armies do to common people and the soldiers sent to do their dirty business.
Like the photographs by Carleton Watkins contributed to the creation of great nature preserves, so James Nachtwey must be given the stage to create a new reality for politicians and global leaders. Let the photographs speak.
In case you are in Paris, the James Nachtwey exhibition is an absolute must. It is so painful that only by seeing it can you consider yourself a person of knowledge. Knowledge of hate, knowledge of fear, and maybe with some luck knowledge of what to do next time you have a choice to make a difference in your country.
Unless you have been living under a rock – in photography terms – you will know that one of the great 20th century masters of the art is William Eugene Smith. The pained and often challenging character that has given us some of the greatest photographic records of all time. His work on display in a fantastic new show in Bologna, Italy. At La Fondazione MAST. MAST for short.
Should you find your way to this culinary paradise of a porticoed city, where food, learning and politics are always near, you must go to MAST. Located on the outskirts of town, an easy cab ride away, no more than 12 EURO from almost anywhere in the city center. Given that admission is free, think of the cab fare as your admission ticket. (they are happy to call you a taxi for your return, if you ask nicely at the gate).
The space inside is as though made for a walk through a collection of photographs. If you know anything about WES, you will know that his Pittsburgh project went from a short assignment to a near nightmare of 20,000 negatives and more than 2,000 prints. It is a documentation of a city in time and place like no other and remains to this day one of the greatest works of documentary photography.
Eugene Smith is one of the great printers of his time, he liked shooting in low light and at a time when film was slower than it is today. This was challenging, yet executed with such skill -both in the composition of the photograph and in the printing – that you simply have to applaud every single print. They are small jewels.
But it is also the space. The gallery. The Museum. The prints are hung up hill. Placed in a space, where white walls and ramps and small stairs move you through and up an exhibition. I cannot say that I have seen or experienced anything similar anywhere else. It is as though you are on a pilgrimage, working your way up ramps and stairs with each corner you turn and every simple wood frame you view, containing another revelation of skill and mastery.
I have been to many, many museums and galleries in my time. Nothing quite like this.
I hope to see many more exhibitions in this space. The setting is fantastic, and partnered with the right photographer, simple frames and white walls with well chosen quotes in English and Italian stenciled here and there, giving the photographs plenty of room to breathe, there is no better place to visit.
You should visit this great show, or at least keep an eye on what comes next. The space is fantastic and the food and wine in Bologna is not bad either…..
In a time of great anxiety over personal privacy, protection of identity, and the right to be forgotten, it seems only fair to question the photographs of Vivian Maier.
I was in Bologna last week and noticed yet another exhibition of photographs by Vivian Maier. During the same week the new privacy guidelines kicked-in in the European Union. Your right to privacy…..
The story of Vivian Maier has been told many, many times. Death. An unpaid storage unit. The discovery of thousands of negatives by the hitherto unknown photographer. The opportunity for great profits.
Vivian Maier lived in silent anonymity and is known only to a few, most of whom were only children, when she seems to have had one eye on them, and the other looking down and through her Rolleiflex.
Little is known about why or when she found the time to photograph and nobody that I have heard, or read about ever saw a print of her work in her own lifetime.
As a photographer, why do I care about the work of Vivian Maier? Well, I like some of it, and I even have one of the many books of her work. But my question is whether anyone has the right to print and sell her work, when there is no will, no relatives and only an unpaid storage unit.
Put myself in her shoes. I am dead. Maybe I don’t care? I have taken thousands of photographs in my time. I have maybe a couple of hundred – at most – that I think are pretty good, and only a couple of handfuls that I know are great, at least in my own opinion. Yet, here I am – 6 foot under – hearing all this fuss about my negatives and the modern, unauthorized prints made from them. Here I am with no control over which photographs are shown and which are not. Here I am with no control over the size of each photograph, how it is printed, silver gelatin or maybe platinum-palladium? Here I am with no say at all. None.
For a deeply private person should she not have the right to privacy. The right to her personal expression. The right to control her own work? Even after she is dead.
Which photographs we show to other people is a deeply personal choice. Case in point: Henri Cartier-Bresson, maybe the greatest of the greats from the 20th century. Before WWII, he cut individual negatives from his rolls of film and put these select, individual negatives that he was proud of, in a small box. He discarded the rest. Thousands of negatives destroyed. Gone. He buried the small box in the backyard and went off to war. The content of the box became famous. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s legacy.
Vivian Maier had no time to cut her negatives, select the frames that would remain her legacy after death. Instead a few people she has no connection to are selecting from thousands of negatives, which are to be her fame. Which are to be her legacy. Vivian Maier died in 2009. She was 83. She cannot possibly have known the kinds of dealers and speculators, both buyers and sellers who stand to profit from her work.
Do a few highly motivated dealers and entrepreneurs – or should I say opportunists – have the right to make decisions for Vivian Maier? Currently tied up in the courts and unable to sell a single print, the opportunists are raising awareness, publishing books, making documentary films, and organizing non-selling exhibitions to promote Vivian Maier’s great eye and great contribution to photography. I assume, all with an eye on a huge payday, should they win in court and be able to sell actual prints that Vivian Maier never saw, never agreed to, and never approved.
We know nothing of Vivian Maier’s wishes, we know nothing of her choices. What we do know is that in her lifetime virtually all her work was kept private and confidential. Like personal data: Private and Confidential.
I don’t believe anyone has the right to decide for Vivian Maier which of her photographs should be printed, shown, sold or given away. If any at all!
Perhaps a public institution like the Library of Congress perhaps, could have a role to play in preserving the work that Vivian Maier did during her lifetime. I might even accept that academic researchers and scholars could have access to her work for the purposes of research and maybe occasionally publishing an image or two in the context of documentation and conservation of our past. But this should not be for commercial gain.
Respect the will of the artist. And failing the presence of a will, respect the rights of those that cannot speak for themselves any longer.
In continuation of my previous entry on the Vintage Photograph, here is Part II:
The case for giving special consideration to the vintage print is straightforward and logical. Consider that until only a few years ago, there were very, very few collectors and no photography market to speak of. Until very recently there was no reason for a photographer to print multiple prints of the same image? He might print a couple to swap or give to close friends, fellow photographers, or on occasion send out in lieu of a Christmas card.
Following the argument that the vintage photograph is as close to the original vision of the photographer, the vintage photograph is the panacea of collecting. Add to that the fact that there was no photography market until very recently, there are no more than a small handful of any given photograph. More often than not, vintage photographs will be small in size. They were easy to send, or give away, so the most likely size of a vintage photograph is 8″ x 10″ or smaller. This is the real deal.
The source for vintage material is often the photographer directly. But just as often the source is wherever a photographer might have sold his work, a commission for a magazine, a company, or a person sitting for a portrait.
It is not that long ago that a career photographer would simply send over a print with the original negative to whomever gave the assignment, and that would be it, as far as the photographer was concerned. As a result, many now-defunct publications and newspapers had filing cabinets full of original prints and negatives sitting in a dark basement or storage room. Some photographs are lost forever, known only from the magazine or newspaper where they appeared. Some were picked from the dumpsters by what now must be seen as very wise and foresightful people. Some were sold in bulk to junk dealers, antiquarians, or antique stores. Wherever they went, they never seemed to make it back to the photographer. These are the true vintage photographs.
Some large publications – which shall remain nameless – tried to sell photographs they had in their archives. With the market for photography going up dramatically over the past two or three decades, I am sure you can imagine the CFO getting wind of the goldmine sitting in the old filing cabinets in the basement. However, seller beware; a number of publications have been sued successfully by photographers for not returning material to them after use. So far, living artists have been more successful than estates in winning these types of cases, and I am sure many more battles will be fought before it finds an equilibrium.
Giving strength to the photographers’ claim to their rightful property is the famous Magnum Photos cooperative. The cooperative was founded by some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, and changed how photography is treated by the media. As a first, Magnum photographers retained the rights to a given image and licensed the media to a single use of a photograph by way of a contract, forever changing the value of the photograph and limiting its use. Magnum changed the balance of power between the publication and the photographer.
But back to the case for the Vintage Photograph….. The price of a vintage print by Edward Weston can go into the mid-six-figures, whereas the prints from the same negative printed by his son Cole will be in the four- or low-five-figure range. Edward Weston watched Cole print, he approved the prints, however to the purist, they are just not the same. There is no contest.
If you find a good image in a garage sale, flea market or antique store, give it a good look, see if it is stamped and maybe even has a scribble on the back, and you may have a small or even a large jewel for your collection. Always look for vintage first. It is the photograph in its purest form.
The much abused and maligned term Vintage Print is perhaps the most hotly debated attribution of all. But what does it mean? And perhaps more importantly, why does it matter?
My definition, which I think is probably accepted by most dealers and galleries is a photograph printed by the artist within 12 months of the photograph having been taken and the film developed.
But why does it matter? The argument goes along the following lines: A photographer makes a photograph, develops the film and makes a print, all immediately following each other without any real lapse of time. The hard core collector will argue that this represents the most authentic version of the photograph, as it is perhaps the best representation of what the photographer had in mind when the shutter was pressed and the image made.
The debate about the significance of vintage the vintage photograph will go on forever, but it is very much part of the vocabulary among collectors and dealers. Two collectors chatting will refer to a photograph as a ‘vintage Brassai’, as opposed to a ‘nice Brassai’ or a ‘great Brassai.’ Collectors value the term ‘vintage’ as part of their code and use it frequently, sometimes loosely. Think of it as a type of insider lingo that confirms that you know of which you speak.
The generally accepted rule seems to be as I have stated above, but what if a photograph is printed within two years of being taken, or maybe three? History has a way of compressing itself.
In historical terms, the Hundred Years War between France and Germany was actually not a war that lasted 100 years, but a series of wars that in combination took about a hundred years. In the same way, when our descendants sit in the classroom in a couple of hundred years’ time, the First World War and the Second World War will have become simply the World War.
Using the same logic, the definition of what is a vintage photograph becomes more fluid in the eyes of some dealers and collectors. If a photograph was taken in March of 1930, developed in March of 1930 and printed in April of 1930, everyone agrees that it is a vintage photograph. If it was taken in 1930, developed in 1930 and printed in 1933, the definition no longer applies, but the further we get away from the 1930s, the more compressed time becomes and the more tempting it is to regard the 1933 photograph as being ‘close enough’ to vintage that it enters the gray area that is termed ‘vintage’ by some.
Of course, another factor in dating photographs is that barely any photograph is stamped with a date, or dated by hand. As such, a lot of decisions become somewhat subjective and the materials and the visual inspection by experts starts to determine ‘vintage’ versus ‘printed later.’
Experts use a number of variables to judge whether they will call a photograph vintage or not. Provenance is of course a major factor. Provenance, as you will recall from my previous blog, is when you can prove by documentation the history of the photograph. This includes letters, receipts and other documents that show where and when you acquired the photograph and where it was prior to that. In the case of a weak provenance, other factors will help determine the classification of a given photograph.
In 20th century photography, the determination of ‘vintage’ versus ‘printed later’ can hinge on things like the paper the photograph is printed on and the appearance of a photograph in comparison to other work from the time by the same photographer, already known to be vintage.
It is a generally accepted fact that up to 75 per cent of the world’s Rembrandts are by other artists, contemporary to Rembrandt. There is a society that spends all its time and energy authenticating paintings by the Dutch master. On a much smaller scale, there are connoisseurs of photography that specialize and are regarded as experts on specific periods in photography, or specific photographers. In the case of Rembrandt, the sciences determine the age of the canvas, the pigments used, the solvents, the varnishes used, etc. X-rays will determine underpainting, sketches and other invisible secrets. But science can only go so far. The Rembrandt expert will look at brushstrokes, the particular way in which an eye is painted or a shadow laid down and from experience will look for all the secret identifiers that determine whether a work is by Rembrandt or one of his associates, or even someone completely outside the circle of the master.
In photography determination of authenticity and age is similar. Certain photographic papers were only made for a short time and analysis of the fibres in a photograph can often determine the age of a print within a range of a few years. In the same way as the Rembrandt expert looks for tell-tale signature traits of the master, the expert on a given photographer looks for specific things in a photograph.
A photographer will during a lifetime likely change the way he or she prints, but during a relatively short period, the printing method and appearance of the finished print is likely to be fairly consistent. The expert will look at similar prints in various collections, private and public, and will through comparison and experience lend his name and reputation to whether a particular print is vintage or not. Of course this is not an exact science, but the collectors give certain experts a lot of respect, and their say-so is good enough for most to accept that a work is indeed vintage.
There are some interesting variations on vintage. What, for instance do you do with a photographer who does not print his or her own work? But that is for another blog.
When looking to buy a photograph, there are a few things to consider and be comfortable with. In photographs, like most other arts, perhaps the term Provenance is the most important of all.
Provenance is the collective term for the chronology of ownership from creation to the present day of a work of art. In other words: Who made it, where has it been since it was made and, who has owned it along the way.
The ultimate provenance is a photograph obtained by you, directly from the artist. This is asserted by a receipt made out to you that says you own the photograph. The receipt must be signed, made out to you, dated and it should include a very specific description of what you have acquired. This might include a description or title, the image size, paper size, the print number, if it is part of an edition, and any other pertinent information. It should be a proper receipt, consistent with other receipts from the artist – preferably not written on a scrap of paper, or the corner of a napkin. The receipt together with the photograph itself is the ultimate provenance, confirming that the photograph came to you directly from the photographer.
If you know the photographer, or perhaps have enough presence of mind to ask while in the glow of the halo of the master, you can ask for the photograph to be dedicated to you. The dedication might read: “For Mary Smith, best wishes, Lee Friedlander, June 5, 2010.”
You should know that some collectors find a personal dedication a negative factor when buying a photograph. Some people don’t like showing off their photograph collection with dedications to people other than themselves, while others find any writing on a photograph, aside from a stamp and signature of the artist, to be undesirable. This is of course very subjective, but just be aware that some collectors will take issue with a dedication.
On a personal note; I have a photograph by one of my heroes, Marc Riboud. It hangs above me as I write this. It reads: “For Harbel, new best friends forever, Marc Riboud”. I asked that he write below the image, right across the front. I have framed it so that you can read the inscription. Of my entire collection, it is the only photograph that I have framed where the mat does not cover the signature. Usually, I find a signature distracting, but in the case of Riboud, I smile every time I look at it and read the inscription. However, I do acknowledge that it has probably deducted a few bucks from the value of the photograph. Not everyone likes a photograph dedicated to someone else. But I digress…..
Failing this direct provenance, we now move into progressively more gray areas. The best in a retail environment is a receipt from the dealer, or gallery representing the artist. A receipt from the dealer accompanying the photograph is usually good provenance, particularly if it is a respected dealer in the photography community.
If you are buying from a fellow collector, and that person can present a credible receipt together with the photograph, that is pretty good provenance.
But as the string grows longer – more owners, more galleries between you and the artist – the facts become harder to check. Auction houses, even the best ones, will have a long list of words that they use to cover themselves, like: “believed to be…”, “from the period…”, “property of a relative…”, “school of….”, etc. The bottom line here is that the more credible you think the paper-trail is, the better.
All rules have exceptions. Sometimes the provenance is less important. This sometimes happens when the previous owner was famous or had particular significance to the world of photography or art in general. This can change everything. An example would be a photograph that was owned by, let’s say Picasso.
Likewise, sometimes a photograph comes from the estate of a famous person, logic and even common sense, often goes out the window in this case. In the auction of Andre Breton’s estate, photographs sold for 10 times their high estimate, because they had belonged to Andre Breton, which begs the question whether it is still about the photograph at all, or about owning a little piece of Andre Breton.
Your tolerance for risk determines how you might feel about a photograph that you wish to acquire. But, always remember, if you love the photograph and know what you are buying, or at least are aware of any downside, should you wish to resell it at a later date, then by all means, go for it and enjoy! Sometimes passion is all that really counts.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. One of the world’s most expensive photographers, born of the German post-war tradition, Andreas Gursky (b. 1952) says with a straight face: “I only pursue one goal: The Encyclopedia of Life.”
Gursky is a child of the Bernd and Hilla Becher school, two masters who set out to show sameness and differences in buildings and industrial installations, cataloguing and recording them for posterity. In short, the founders of what has become known as The Dusseldorf School. How is it possible that one who shoots with a digital camera and admits to manipulating the digital files, so as to make them more pleasing and interesting to the eye – adding a couple of bends to a race course, or removing a large and unsightly factory from the banks of the Rheine, as in Rheine II – can be the maker of The Encyclopedia of Life. How is it that curators and critics quote and agree with this pretense? How can this graphic artist – I refuse to call him a photographer – even contemplate calling himself the maker of an “Encyclopedia of Life”?
It seems to me that yet again, we are having to question everything we see, every image, every movie, every piece of news, because not a single conveyor of knowledge or imagery can be trusted? Is that really the legacy we want to leave for the next generation, or the ones after that, who will never know the truth, because we in the present day knowingly allow it to be altered.
Andreas Gursky: Rheine II
Anonymous photographer: Rheine I
Is it photography when what is in the photograph does not exist in real life? Are we getting so accustomed to an alternative reality, where super heroes dominate the silver screen, zombies walk the streets and natural disasters are glorified though CGI, not because it is a great story, but simply because we can. When one can sit at home on the couch and virtually walk through a busy shopping area with a Kalashnikov and try to hit the bad guys, but if you take out an innocent civilian you lose three points. Is this to be our desensitized, pathetic legacy?
Do we have to check the raw file from every image printed to see if it is real? Do we have to physically travel to the banks of the Rheine to look across and see the ugly factory to know what is real and what is fake?
If Andreas Gursky gets to be the writer and illustrator of the “Encyclopedia of Life”, then it is nothing but a ruse, a badly written screenplay put to life in the form of a huge piece of brightly coloured paper, mounted, framed and carrying a million dollar price tag. One great big lie.
Most of my friends and fellow analog photographers (those that use film and manually develop the film and print by hand in a darkroom) have been speculating, whether the reason a digitally modified image is sold as a photograph, as opposed to digital art (a digigraph?compugraph?manipugraph?) is simply fear. The fear of facing a collector with the reality that the ‘photograph’ they have just sold is more computer than photograph. Fear….
I propose that what drives this fear is the vanity of the art market. Let me explain. Many looking to buy art – more and more often with one eye investment value – have dived into photography. Art advisors and many art-value indexes suggest that photography may be the place to invest, better than almost any other area of collecting.
The art market has in many ways been reduced to just another index ruled by nouveaux riches collectors shaping it with large amounts of money, which otherwise would sit idly in the bank making little or no interest. Massive bonuses prop up an overheated art market, reaching levels that are difficult even to contemplate.
If these new collectors had to think in terms of what a photograph represents, versus a work of art created from one or more computer files, manipulated by software programs, and printed by a machine, would he or she still pay the prices that photography commands?
Can a contemporary computer manipulated image by an artist that has barely arrived on the scene reasonably command the same amount of money as a hand printed silver gelatin photograph by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Andre Kertesz, Harry Callahan or Henri Cartier-Bresson?
Perhaps it is time to embrace the digigraph, or the compugraph? Let the family tree of art sprout a new branch. A new discipline that can stand on its own, command its own attention, on its own terms.
Let the traditional darkroom photograph be. Stop the confusion. Stop the insanity.
A green stamp on the back of each of Gianni Berengo Gardin’s photographs reads: VERA FOTOGRAFIA.
Vera Fotografia, because he is saying that what you see in his photograph is what was in front of him when he made the photograph. It has not been manipulated, changed or enhanced with Photoshop or other digital editing software. It is made from an analog film negative and is printed by hand on fiber based paper, in a conventional darkroom.
It is a delight to see a photographer that lives in the spirit of observing life, upholding the standards of purity that I aspire to, and who boldly and confidently stamps every photograph he makes, warts and all. That is truly someone after my own heart, something worth aspiring to. And, as such, I have adopted the same approach, stamping my photographs with a like stamp, for the same reason and with the same intent. Vera Fotografia!
I don’t think of myself as particularly pure, nor innocent, but I do think of photography at a cross-roads. Let me give you three quick examples:
I have been a follower and admirer of Peter Beard for many years. In the early 1960s, Peter Beard took wildlife photographs in Africa from his base in the hills near Nairobi. He brought the world The End of the Game, a book, or record of the terrible future facing wildlife in the face of human encroachment, the ivory trade, etc. I would be curious to hear from Peter Beard what he thinks about Nick Brandt’s lion that appears to come straight from central casting, having just passed through hair and make-up?
For a long time Nick Brandt claimed that it was all done by hand in the darkroom and that he had taken a medium format negative and simply printed it. This was followed initially by whispers, then more loudly by an echo across the analog photography community: This is just not possible. Then in a response to a blog discussion on Photrio.com he came clean, well most of the way, anyway. Nick Brandt: “I shoot with a Pentax 67II and scan my negs. Photoshop is a fantastic darkroom for getting the details out of the shadows and highlights with a level of detail that I never could obtain in the darkroom. However, the integrity of the scene I am photographing is always unequivocally maintained in the final photograph. Animals and trees are not cloned or added.”
I am mildly amused that he refers to Photoshop as a fantastic darkroom, but I do feel woefully cheated when I look at his work. I don’t know what to believe anymore. Digital art perhaps. But a photograph? A representation of what was before him when he made the shot? Perhaps through rose coloured glasses, but not in any reality that I have ever seen.
At Paris Photo last year, I had a very enlightening discussion with a dealer, who claimed that a particular image shot by Sebastiao Salgado for his Genesis project had to be shot with a digital camera, due to the movement of the boat in Arctic waters. She explained that this was merely to freeze the moment. Digital had nothing to do with making the penguins pop out against a rather dull day. Penguins literally jumping off the paper. No, it was all about holding the camera steady on the boat in rough seas. Really?
And finally, my favorite… One of the most expensive photographs ever sold. You know the one, the belts of green grass broken only by the dull gray of the river and the sky. Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II. I understand there was an unsightly factory on the opposite bank. It got in the way of the composition. So Gursky simply removed it. Digital art? Art for sure. $4.3 million says it is. Photograph? Maybe not.
Three examples of what you see, may not be what was actually there. But, then I am not here to question other people’s ‘photographs’. Merely to suggest that perhaps there are different kinds of photographs, and it is time to think about this.
I for one have adopted the Green Rubber Stamp. My photographs now read “Vera Fotografia”, partly in homage to my hero, who took the bold step of declaring himself an authentic analog photographer, but also, to make a little, if tiny, point…
It used to be simple; photographs had a colour palette that went from black through the grays to white. Variations, such as the albumen photograph ranged from dark brown to light cream, and cyano-types went from an almost black marine blue to the palest of blue/white. However, throughout the history of the medium, most photographs were what we would call black and white.
Experimentation with colour started almost as early as photographs were stabilized on paper or metal. In the beginning, colour was simply applied with a brush to the black and white image. Early portraits got a healthy complexion with pink lips and rouged cheeks at the hands of the skilled touch-up artist. Later, a variety of methods were developed to show colour in photographs.
Unfortunately, most colour methods have not stood up well to the passing of time. Most have faded, colour-shifted, so that faces have turned from healthy to very sickly, and clothes, grass and trees turned to colours that are brown and muddy. Most older, colour photographs have simply lost their brightness and sharpness. Just have a look at your own family albums…. they look a little muddy and have that ‘old’ look to them, right?
I know of only two methods that are truly stable. One, the dye-transfer process, is no longer used because it became too expensive. Some great photographs were made using this method, but sadly no more. Ernest Hass was maybe the most consistent user of this technology. The second, is the Fresson process. Fresson printing a multi-step laying down of individual colour layers and is still done today at a single family owned lab in France. The closely guarded secret process has not changed in nearly a century. Sheila Metzner is a strong proponent of this printing method, as is the interesting French photographer Bernard Plossu.
Every so many months new inks are developed for new generations of digital printers, new and improved papers are developed. For many years, dating back to the 1940s, Kodak and Fuji went through many, many generations of ‘new and improved’, as have the print, ink and paper manufacturers that produce both the high-end commercial jobs, and the home-use printer you have sitting on the corner of your desk. But is it stable?
A 740 page whopper of a book, still regarded as something of a bible in colour photography, “The Permanence and Care of Colour Photographs” by Henry Wilhelm, is now more than 20 years old. But, it is still often referred to by those that are interested in colour photography. The book dives deep into 20 years of extensive research into the colour medium in photography and how it ages.
Published in 1993, this book describes in great detail all that has gone wrong over the years in colour photography, promises that were broken by suppliers of film and paper, only to be renewed with the next generation of printing technology. Perhaps a little surprising, Wilhelm, ever the optimist, too concludes that nirvana is imminent with new processes being proposed and new in-organic inks arriving on the scene that will change everything.
I am not sure what to believe. I have 5 colour photographs in my collection; One Fresson, two dye-transfer prints, two prints by the Saul Leiter of Canada, Fred Herzog. The latter two are modern digital prints. Don’t ask me what inks are used, or even what paper, but I have a document from the gallery that guarantees the images. The photographer, Fred Herzog is more than 90 years old and the gallery almost acts for him, so I am comfortable with my ability to replace my two images.
But, what if you are considering buying a terrific colour photograph? If it feels right, looks right and meets all the critical considerations that are important to you, as a collector, the obvious answer is to recommend that you buy the photograph. Love it. Enjoy it, but be aware…
Photography collectors have long suffered from chromophobia – the fear of colour. Many have seen fabulous work simply fade, colour shift, or virtually disappear in front of their eyes and are understandably cautious. But that may be the past. You, the modern day collector with no baggage, no prior catastrophes, may fell ready to take on the endless possibilities that colour represents.
Personally, I would make sure that when you buy colour work, the artist (even if you buy through a gallery) guarantees the work and will offer nothing less than a full refund or a replacement print, in the event of a small or epic failure. And do get this in writing signed by the artist, in the event the gallery where you bought the work should fall on hard times and disappear.
I only make black and white photographs, so thankfully have much less to worry about!
The world is a mess. Everywhere you look there is disappointment in leadership, pending scandals, international conflicts simmering, or on the full boil. Something that should be as simple as a conversation among fellow citizens around an independent Catalonia either inside Spain or on its own seems to be drawing out the worst in people with the potential to turn into 1937 all over again. It cannot be, and we cannot let it happen.
Barcelona is one of the great cities in the world. The only Olympic city that has managed to turn a 17 day party in 1992 into a lasting legacy with incredible staying power, great architecture, culture, food and above all else, people.
These same people, who make the city so special, are the people that remind me of a fun story that led to one of my better efforts with the camera. I was in Barcelona. It was April, late April, and the weather forecast was not great. I got in a taxi to go to my hotel and it started to snow. Big fluffy flakes. The roads quickly turned sloppy and wet, with traction starting to get difficult for the driver. On his dash, the cell phone that was doubling as a GPS rang. The driver’s wife told him to come home immediately and forget about driving anymore today, because of the terrible snowstorm. I convinced the driver to take me to my hotel, although he complained he would get in trouble with his wife. At my hotel, he dropped me at the curb and promptly turned the taxi sign on top of his car off, and probably made his way home.
I went to my hotel room, on the first floor of a mostly residential street. I was in a corner room at a typical wide open Barcelona intersection. I stood in the window with my camera, looking down at the street, where the local residents came out in their sandals with umbrellas to enjoy the freak April snow. It did not last long, but while it was still accumulating on the ground, there were a few choice moments. You can see the resulting photograph in my gallery ‘The Ones’.
Good photographs are memories. They represent time capsules and I often say that they allow you to forget, because the minute you revisit them, the location, situation and the entire scene comes back to life, as though you are right there, in the moment.
Diane Arbus wrote in a 1972 letter: “They are the proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you.”
Leaf through a photo-album and you go on a trip that carries all kinds of emotions. Joy, happiness, sadness, despair, it’s all right there on the small pieces of paper.
When you make photographs for a broader audience – for other people – you try to take these moments in time and make them not only your own, but when successful, they are universal.
In the best case, a great photograph allows you, the viewer, to project your own memory or your own story onto the photograph. You make new memories or restores memories that you had otherwise parked, somewhere far back, way back in that seldom accessed lobe of your brain.
A few years ago, I was sitting on a plane en route to Madrid. I was reading what was then the International Herald Tribune. I tore out a review of a photography exhibition taking place at the time. I have had this review burning a hole in my desk drawer and it is time to discuss! Obviously, the review was written by an art critic that was not an expert on photography, as you will see from the quote below:
“The issue of whether photography can be art is an old one that dates back to the origins of the activity itself. Ever since the pictorialist photographers of the 1870s attempted to compete with painters, borrowing from their compositions and subject matter, photographers have never ceased measuring their own work against that of plastic artists. They have come up with chemical and lighting tricks, they have used collage and montages, superpositions and hybrids….”, etc., etc.
It is quite clear that some critics until this day consider the plastic arts — that would be your painting, sculpture, and so forth — far superior. To them photography is beneath them and more of a craft or a technical skill. This may be in part because not all university art history degrees incorporate photography? Mine did, but you could easily have avoided photography all together, as all the photography courses were electives and the introductory Art History courses mentioned virtually no photography or photographers at all. As such, the critic above is not equipped to have an opinion, other than one based in personal taste, rather than foundational knowledge (it is common knowledge, and generally agreed, among photography art historians that Pictorialist photography did not start until 1885 or 1889, and was very dead by 1920).
But, all this aside, what is it that makes the critic frown upon the photographer and his work? Is it because it involves mechanical equipment? The chemicals in the processing? The ability to make multiple images? Each of these activities can be found in a number of the plastic arts, yet that does not seem to matter. A sculptor’s foundry, a painter’s lithographs, Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, all have some form of tool kit, along with a base material, be it stone, metal, canvas or paper. So why is photography treated differently?
Perhaps the best thing is to ignore the critics all together. Or listen to Jean-Michel Basquiat, who said: “I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”
Alfred Stieglitz is one of the key names in the history of photography. Alfred Stieglitz set art photography back 100 years!
Alfred Stieglitz opened a gallery in New York called Gallery 291 in 1905. In his gallery, Mr. Stieglitz showed primarily photographs. He also published a magazine, Camera Work. An expensive, subscription only, publication dedicated to the art of photography. With these tools he managed to control and I would argue stall the development of fine art photography around the world. In Camera Work’s prime, photographers from across North America and Europe, mainly in the United Kingdom, would take out expensive subscriptions to Camera Work and would submit their amateur photographs to Stieglitz for approval and perhaps even inclusion in Camera Work. Stieglitz decided what was good and what was not. He was judge, jury, and executioner all in one.
Edward J. Steichen – Rodin
Stieglitz believed very strongly that two things needed to be present in a photograph to be an art photograph:
The first thing was a certain feel or mood, which for the majority of Stieglitz’ career meant a painterly feel, meaning that the photographer had to manipulate the negative using various chemicals, coatings, printing techniques, etc. to express a mood or feeling that imitated what one might expect to see in a late Victorian sofa painting, rather than a photograph. A straight photograph showing what was in front of the photographer, and printed without manipulation, was not art. Not to Alfred Stieglitz.
The second, it was not acceptable for a fine art photographer to be professional, to do commercial work. This meant that if you got paid, or made a living from photography, you were a lost soul. To belonging to the circle around Stieglitz you had to have independent means and do photography, because you thought it was a wonderful hobby and a suitable high-brow pass-time. (The irony here might be that for years Stieglitz struggled to make money with his gallery and his magazine, both poorly executed commercial disasters.)
Gertrude Kaesebier – le dejeuner sur l’herbe?
Many may disagree, but I believe the photography-world inherited two major problems from Stieglitz. Problems we still very much struggle with today. The first problem with Stieglitz, that took almost 60 years to fix, was that if you were shooting straight photography, meaning that you printed what you saw, no manipulation, but processed and printed with minimal correction or changes, this was not art. I would argue, that it was not until the legendary Harry Lunn started selling editioned photographs of Ansel Adams’ landscapes did this change. We are talking 1970s.
The second, some would argue has yet to be fixed, because many still very much believe that an art photographer cannot be a commercial/professional photographer, or have a job on the side. By way of an example, let me illustrate the mindset of a lot of gallerists: A photographer friend of mine recently returned from New York, where he presented his work to a dealer. The dealer liked his work, but did not consider him serious, because he had a job to support his photography. The dealer suggested he look at a photographer she represents, who has been shooting since he was 14. He shoots full time and is a serious art photographer….
Clearly, we have not passed the point where it is acceptable to be commercial in the sense that you support your art-photography with a full or part time job, or by shooting green peppers for the local super market chain to make ends meet. While there may be some hope on the horizon, as some fashion work and still life photographs are going mainstream as art, there is still work to do. Commercial photographers like Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn have helped break the curse.
I hold Alfred Stieglitz responsible for holding back fine art-photography from its destiny for the better part of 100 years. From the infancy of photography in the 1830s, until the painterly direction in photography that Stieglitz promoted started to dominate in the 1880s, it was perfectly acceptable to have a photograph of Rome, Venice or Athens hanging on your wall next to a painting. It took a full century, until the 1980s before this was again something you might see other than in your local pizzeria or Greek restaurant.
Stieglitz found straight photography again towards the end of his career, and in some ways his gallery did matter, bringing photography to an albeit select group of visitors in New York. But, he led photography down a blind alley, and the wonderful portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe, or his Equivalent photographs do not make up for the damage he did. As a photographer, there is every reason to hate Alfred Stieglitz!
Lee Friedlander – Montana 2008
Photography – straight photography – has a place in the pantheon of fine art, along side painting, sculpture and the other fine arts. This is a fact. Even the naysayers will get there eventually…..No thanks to Alfred Stieglitz.
To see more visit my website: Harbel.com
Images are borrowed from the web and are attributed to the artists identified and are for illustration purposes only, no rights owned or implied.
What makes a great photograph? It is very, very personal. Books have been written, conferences held…. For me, I have learned that it can be a moving definition. It can change with time, but it is worthwhile to have a look at the process of becoming great.
I am going to turn to the French philosopher Roland Barthes. He wrote a book called “Camera Lucida.” It is a small book with a long philosophical discussion of the photograph. Barthes coins two terms that are worth remembering: ‘studium’ and ‘punktum.’
Pictures or images with studium are images that you notice. Think of all the photographs you are exposed to every day, ads on your phone, computer, television, billboards, photographs in newspapers, magazines, and so forth. Now, of all these impressions, which some now count as more than 3,000-5,000 a day, there is maybe one that you really notice. That image has studium.
A photograph with studium has the ability to capture your attention. It draws you in. It may play on your heart-strings, it may remind you of something, it may fill you with guilt, play with your mind. You may not like it; you may think it is horrible. Image creators know what works and what doesn’t (most of the time). Think babies, puppies, humour, sex, and so on. Studium you notice.
Punktum is when one of your studium images stays with you over time. These are quite rare. It is an image that comes back to you under certain circumstances, given certain stimuli.
You can probably think of images that you saw today that had studium, but probably not the ones from yesterday or last week. More importantly, you can likely think of images that have stayed with you and surfaced over and over again in your mind’s eye. They have punktum.
Let me give you some universal examples:
The dead migrant child on the beach in Greece; the Vietnam War photograph of the young girl running naked towards the camera following a napalm attack; the first man on the moon; the plumes of smoke on 9/11, etc. These are universal. I don’t have to show you any of these photographs; you have them stored in your mind, in full detail.
In addition to the universal images, there are punktum images that are particular to you. You know what they are. You may not be able to command them to appear before your inner eye, but given the right stimuli, they will show up, time and again.
Among my personal punktum images, none are news photographs. This may be because I look for a particular skill in the photographer. In the simplicity or minimalism of the photographs, which has a particular appeal to me. No accounting for personal taste.
Both my examples are of a single figure, a portrait of sorts. The Horst P. Horst Mainbocher Corset was one of the first photographs I scraped together enough money to purchase. Made in 1939, it represents to me a daring, superbly lit figure from a time in photography, which was starting to move from recording fact, through early experimentation and surrealism to the mainstream. Made by the master of studio lighting, Horst, the photograph represents a very sensual rear-view of a corseted woman, with the ribbon loose and laying across a marble surface and in part hanging over the edge, where it catches the light beautifully. Revolutionary for the time, the model is photographed from behind and skirting, if not crossing, the line of what was permissible in print media at the time. An incredible image, which has remained with me since I first saw it in an art history class. I look at it every day and continue to be in awe.
My second punktum image, is one that I call Boots. I am not sure what the proper title is. The photograph by Chris Killip, I first saw at the Rose Gallery in Los Angeles. It hit me as being an incredibly composed and lit photograph, but emotionally charged with what I believe is anguish and maybe desperation. To me, what hits home are the disproportionately big boots. I remember as a kid getting a shirt and jacket that were ‘to grow into’. These boots look like they are several sizes too big, maybe from a military surplus store. It is a photograph of desperation. I have seen many photographs of people that are down and out, but this boy, or young man is just too young to be this desperate. Every time I look at this photograph, my toes tighten in my shoes, I get goose bumps. I have had it hanging on my wall for several years now, and it still feels like a punch in the stomach every time I look at it. Punktum.
To address the idea that your personal punktum may change over time, I can say that Diane Arbus’ Boy with a Toy Hand Granade was the photograph that made me change my focus at university to Photography from Renaissance Art. The photograph had huge punktum for me, but has since lost its charge. Why? I saw the contact sheet from the shoot, and later read an interview with the boy in the photograph. In the Arbus photograph the boy looks like he is a person with a mental disability, which is very consistent with the outsiders that appear again and again in Arbus’ work. However, on the contact sheet, the boy looks like any other little boy playing in the park, and I do not like the fact that the photograph that Arbus selected from the roll, somehow misrepresents what was in front of her. It no longer resonates. It is like the Robert Doisneau photograph of the couple kissing at the Hotel de Ville in Paris, which I loved as the epitome of Parisian street photography, until I learned that it was staged with two actors…., but that is another story.
I must have seen millions of photographs in my time as a photographer and collector, and if you asked me to draw up a list of photographs that had punktum for me, I might get to 25 or 30. Some of these I have on my wall. Some I would dearly love to hang on my wall. Some I will never have, because they are either sitting in a museum and not available on the open market, or I simply cannot afford them. Others, despite their punktum, I don’t want. They might be gruesome, or too difficult to look at and live with. I am fortunate to have a few punktum images in my collection that I love and would never part with. This is the power of punktum.
See more on my website: harbel.com
Images are borrowed from the web and are for illustration purposes only, no rights owned or implied.